When veteran writer/producer John Wirth took over as showrunner on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, it was a somewhat strangely public process. John Shiban, the showrunner for the show’s first two seasons, backed out unexpectedly after the series was renewed, leading AMC to make the series’ pickup contingent on finding a new showrunner. With series creators Joe and Tony Gayton departing as well, Wirth stepped into a series with established characters, existing storylines, and more or less complete creative freedom to take the show in whatever direction he desired.
That direction has made the show a strange sort of success story for AMC, shuffled off to the prestige-less refuge of Saturday nights where it’s been quietly outperforming expectations (see Kate Aurthur’s report at Buzzfeed for more). It concludes its third season tonight at 9/8c on AMC with the expectation that it has earned a fourth season, and having successfully transitioned from a slightly underperforming prestige AMC drama to a successful translation of their film western audience into original programming on a normally dead night.
At July’s TCA Press Tour before the season premiered, I had a chance to talk to Wirth about his perspective on showrunning, how he came to be involved with Hell on Wheels, his planned use of social media (which I’ll be reflecting on soon elsewhere), and how—despite the strange circumstances—Hell On Wheels marks a meaningful period in his career as a showrunner-for-hire.
This is far from your first time serving as showrunner on a series; in fact, the Internet suggests you were part of a “Showrunner Training Program” at some point? How do you train someone to be a showrunner?
JW: I put together a committee of writer-producer-showrunner types. We did a small book called A Television Writers’ Handbook. And it was the first time in the history of the Writers’ Guild that anybody had codified what it is to work on a TV show and what the various positions are and what’s expected of you when you’re in those positions. And we had a big chapter on showrunners, and how to behave as a showrunner, and so forth.
Out of that, Jeff Melvoin—who I had asked to be a part of that committee—had the idea: is this something we could teach? And I didn’t believe that it was, and he believed that it was. He said “I’m going to try to put together this program, will you work on it with me? “And I said sure, but I don’t want to be in charge—this little book we did took five years, and I thought it would take a couple months.
We put together the Showrunner Training Program, which has been enormously successful. I still don’t believe you can teach someone to be a showrunner, but you can expose them to the things they’re going to experience when they are showrunners. That’s really the goal of that program, to let people know what it is they’re going to be experiencing when they get that job.
What’s that job like?
The job itself is ridiculous. You’re the hardest working man or woman in show business – the hours are incredible, you have to be a writer/producer and manager, you have to manage up down and sideways, you have to be a priest, you have to be a magician, you have to be a wife – it’s nutty.
So why you do you think AMC came to you to fill that job on Hell on Wheels?
JW: I think they got to the Ws in their rolodex and were like “Damnit!” Who’s after this guy? We’d better like him.
That being said, you’ve certainly made a name for yourself running these shows, being brought in to shepherd ships and get a show back on the right track. Do you think this reputation preceded you in this case?
JW: Yeah. They saw a lot of people, and they were trying to get the right person. I think they were meeting people and they wanted you to say the right thing in the meeting, and I didn’t really want the job. I’m pretty good at blowing myself up in these meetings. I had been working as a consultant at Falling Skies and I was writing a pilot at NBC and I was writing a novel. So I was pretty busy. So I just went into the meeting and I said “Guys, I don’t know what’s wrong with your show. And I’m nervous, because the previous showrunners…”
It was a weirdly public situation.
JW: “I don’t think this is really what I want to do.” So I left and called my agent and said “Well, I’m not going to get that job.” And he goes “Oh, they want to see you again.” I was like “What?” So I went in for a second meeting, and they asked if I’d look at the episodes and come back and talk to us about the show. So I went out, looked at all the episodes, and came back, and we had a more substantive conversation about the show.
Here’s what I said to them: The Beatles are my favorite band. You have these four fantastic individuals: everyone knows John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Together, as The Beatles, something happened. Individually they are fantastic, but when you put them together? Incredible. This show felt to me like the parts were greater than the whole. I think that’s what I perceive, and I don’t know why that is. And they were like “Interesting, okay.” At a certain point they said “we want you for the job.” Then I had to put my money where my mouth was and say either I’m going to be able to do this or I’m not.
Then I dug in and started thinking that the character was very closed in this dark and grim revenge motive, and it wasn’t really taking us anywhere except to a very self-destructive and deconstructive place. If this show was going to work, people had to embrace these characters, especially him. I needed to find a way to open him up, reinvest him in the human race and his own survival, and see if I could humanize him and get people to get involved in what it is he wanted. That’s really been the quest right here.
It’s a bit of a reboot, in that respect: How would you compare that process to stepping into an existing series as the showrunner, working with the creators to map a series as you did on The Cape or Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles?
JW: When we were talking about showrunners earlier and I was saying you have to be a writer/producer/etc. and a wife—in the situation where your creator is with you like Tom Wheeler or Josh Friedman, you’re kind of the wife. You have a lot of power and a lot of say-so, but when invitations come in it always says Mr. and Mrs. Josh Friedman.
In this instance I’m not the wife. The husband and the wife have been moved out and I’ve moved in, and they left all their stuff and it’s like “Okay, these are nice glasses, I think I’ll keep those. I don’t like these, let’s get rid of those.” It’s just that process. I sort of looked at it as my job was to honor the great work that had come before, try to identify what it was about the show that wasn’t clicking, make some adjustments in that area, and get everybody together to say “We can do this. There’s been a lot of turmoil, but let’s pull together and let’s try to take this to the next level.
And you didn’t really have a clear impediment to this process.
JW: There was not a clear impediment because they were all gone. AMC was very interested in just getting the show settled down, and having somebody in control with a vision of what it could be. And they’ve been enormously supportive, I’m happy to say.
Of course, what’s unique is that it’s still that other person’s show: those names are still going to pop up as “created by,” but you ultimately have the control necessary to author the story as you see fit. Often when we think about showrunners people jump to your Gilligans, your Weiners, big names we understand as creative visionaries: they created the series, every script goes through them, they have seven-year plans, and things like that. That’s not really a role you’ve played in the same way, but do you think we gloss over the roles showrunners play in different circumstances beyond “creation?”
JW: I think that happens. It’s unusual that Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan also have showrunner skills, because they don’t always. Yes I did not create the show, but I have a vision for it, a very strong vision for it, and all scripts and decisions run through me. The only thing I did not do is create the world, but I am world building—I am rebuilding the world that was built by the creators. It’s just like anything in your life that you walk into and you’re handed something: thank you, first of all, and secondly, I would like to make these changes. This is my world now.
There’s two different kinds of showrunners: One is you’re brought in not to be the creative vision – in the case of Sarah Connor, Josh Friedman had a very, very clear idea about what he wanted that show to be. So my job on that show was to help him make that happen, and fight all the studio battles and network battles on his behalf to promote his vision of the show. Here, I’m asked to be that guy but also have a vision.
Given that, are you still pursuing development?
JW: No. I have a project in development currently, but I’m not allowed to contractually pursue it while we’re in production at Hell on Wheels. If I were going to write it, it would have to be between now and January when we’d typically go back to work if there’s a season four. And I’d like to do some traveling, so…
Do you still want to have a pilot of your own? You’ve done various pilots, you’ve had development deals, so you’ve played that game.
JW: You know, it’s not as important to me now as it was. At a certain point in your life, you get to a certain place and if you have a minute you go “Wait a second, what did I set out to do? And what am I doing? And is that one thing or am I on another path now, and am I still thinking I’m trying to do that other thing, and does that make any sense given where I arrived at?” And that happened to me when I was about 40, and then I said “Oh, I’m going down a different path.” I kind of became known as a guy who could take a difficult show that was having problems and fix it—The District for example—and so it was just a different thing. I had never thought of myself as being that guy, or doing it, but it happened.
It’s not the worst job description, given how it’s turned out in this case.
JW: In this case, it’s been a dream: Network is supportive, fabulous troop of actors, wonderful writers, God’s green acres in Alberta, great crew, ten episodes (so it’s 8 months instead of 12 months)—it’s pretty good.
I always check to see if showrunners are on Twitter, and I see you’re a somewhat recent convert [@WirthWhileTV]—What got you on Twitter, and how have you been using it?
JW: My writers’ assistant—whose nickname is Brain because when I can’t think of anything he finds it for me, so I don’t really have to think about anything anymore—said “You should be on Twitter.” So he created a Twitter account for me, and we set it up right in the writers’ room, and there were four writers there who said “Well, we should probably follow you.” So they followed me, and I had four followers. And my first tweet was “My first four followers are people I can fire.”
I don’t have any followers, I have like 807 or something like that. But it’s remarkable to me: Who are they? Who are those people? How did they find me? What are they hoping to get from me? But it’s a very interesting tool, and I follow all my buddies: Damon [Lindelof], and Shawn Ryan—
I saw Bear McCreary on there.
JW: Love Bear. But I mostly see it as a tool to promote the show. I take a lot of pictures when I’m in Calgary and I’ll send them out on my Twitter. We have a writers’ room and there’s always somebody interesting walking by whether it’s David Milch or Joss Whedon, so I’ll post “Out the writers’ room window today.” As the show starts airing, we’re going to have a big social media meeting about how to make this all come together, and I suppose I’ll be—I know Carlton [Cuse] has tweeted during Bates Motel, and if they want me to do that I’d be willing to do that. It’s a great tool which I don’t fully understand.
No one fully understands Twitter—it’s a completely different tool for everyone depending on how it fits with them personally and professionally.
JW: I got a tweet from an actor who was in an early episode and he’s coming back for a later episode. He had gotten the script and he read the script and he sent me a tweet: “Loved the script.” And I said okay, that’s interesting. He could have sent me an email, he could have called me on the phone. It’s been kind of interesting—I really want to get into it, and get more adept at handling it, and broaden its efficiency for me and make it a powerful tool.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.